Birthmarks: myths, stigma and surgery
Thirty-two-year-old Manaka Singh remembers being discriminated against as a child by the elders of her family who thought she was possessed and inauspicious because of a birthmark on her neck.
"People still have myths associated with these birthmarks and I had to face a lot of discrimination because some people in my family thought I was possessed and was inauspicious," Singh said.
"This discrimination forced me to get rid of this mark because it was affecting my mental state and social interactions," she added.
According to Anup Dhir, senior cosmetic surgeon at Apollo Hospital, some other myths associated with these birthmarks are that they are caused when an expecting mother sees something strange, or experiences a great deal of fear. None of this is true, of course.
Kaya skin clinic's medical head Snehal Sriram agrees with Dhir: "Some people believe that birthmarks are caused by anything done or not done during pregnancy. There is no truth to these old wives' tales about these 'stains' being caused by something the mother did or ate."
Though the real cause behind birthmarks is still unknown, they are mostly harmless and painless.
As Dhir explains, a birthmark is a blemish on the skin formed before birth. It is a vascular lesion (abnormal tissue) and looks like soft raised swelling on the skin, often with a bright red surface, and some may look a bit like a strawberry or may be a black or a brown mole.
"They are a benign overgrowth of blood vessels in the skin, and are made up of cells that usually form the inner lining of blood vessels. Some birthmarks show up soon after a baby is born. Most birthmarks are obvious at birth. Some kinds of birthmarks fade or go away as a child gets older. Others stay the same or get bigger, darker, or thicker," Dhir told IANS.
Another reason for having these birthmarks is to have extra colour (melanin pigment) in that part of skin, says Mumbai-based cosmetic surgeon Meenakshi Agarwal.
Different types of birthmarks are vascular (such as strawberry hemangiomas, port-wine stains, and stork bites) and pigmented (such as moles, cafe-au-lait spots, and Mongolian spots).
"Hemangiomas are caused by many tiny blood vessels bunched together and vary in severity whereas port wine stains are caused by abnormal development of blood vessels and last a lifetime," Agarwal told IANS on phone.
A lot of people shy away from social gatherings to avoid unwanted attention because of these marks.
Pragya Khanna, 18, is very conscious about the birthmark on the right side of her cheek. She hides it with her hair whenever she goes out and tries to avoid meeting new people who ask her about this black patch.
"Every time I meet a new person, his attention is automatically directed towards my cheeks and the worst part is that either they will stare at it or else will ask me obvious questions like what is it? It does get embarrassing for me. Hence I either try to hide it or else avoid meeting new people," Khanna said with a bit of irritation.
"I am planning to get rid of this because my confidence level is already shattered and I don't want to live my life with people staring at my face," she added.
The good news is that most of these marks can be treated with laser therapy.
"These treatments can be painful and it is very important to know the benefits and risks involved in it. Success rate varies according to type of mark. Though lasers are generally successful on improving them but at times complete cure may not be possible," Dhir said.
According to experts, one should take a few precautions after undergoing treatments.
"After the birthmark has been treated with surgery or laser therapy, avoid scratching the treated area. It's also important to restrict exposure to the sun for several weeks after surgery. Until the treated areas are completely healed, use sunscreen regularly," Sriram said.